Classical music has always been a bit of a boy’s club. In fact, some of the most recognized figures within classical music, such as Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven, are all men. Around the globe, some of the most prestigious ensembles, like the Metropolitan Opera, feature little to no women either in solo positions or in the performed repertoire. However, slowly but surely, women are seeing an increase in recognition and opportunities within the field of classical music.
In 2013, according to the website Bachtrack, one out of the 100 top conductors were women. In 2019, that number jumped from just one to eight. While these numbers are steadily rising, they could stand to rise faster, given the recent attention and studies directed towards this issue.
Some, such as Marin Alsop, named 28th in the 100 top conductors, maintain that the lack of women in high-status positions within classical music stems from the greater gender inequalities within society at large. To address these underlying biases, some ensembles have adopted the practice of blind auditions, in which the selection panel is made blind to the performer’s physical appearance. However, results have not been conclusive as to whether the practice is effective or not.
Echoing these concerns of sexism is Mirga Gražinytė–Tyla, the current director of music at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and number 25 of the top 100 conductors. Virtually unknown before her appointment to director of music, Gražinytė–Tyla has become known for her unique conducting style and energy. She’s also gained recognition for being the first woman to sign with the record label Deutsche Grammophon and for bringing her baby to rehearsals.
Beyond conducting, another facet of the classical world is composing. In 2016, only seven women were considered among the 50 top composers, as reported by Bachtrack. By 2019, that number has grown to 13 women. Of these women, Cecilia McDowall, a British composer known best for her choral and orchestral works, is the highest-ranked of these women, taking 19th place on the list. McDowall’s most recent work is titled “Everyday Wonders: The Girl From Aleppo” and conveys the escape of a girl living with cerebral palsy from Aleppo, Syria.
Another female composer high in the rankings of top 50 composers is Jennifer Higdon, who is ranked 21st. A Pulitzer Prize and two-time Grammy winner, Higdon has enjoyed a celebrated career. Her work has spanned several genres, including those for wind, choral, and orchestral ensembles, and she is a former Guggenheim fellow.
Perhaps the biggest news for women in classical music recently is the recipient of the Golden Globe for ‘Best Original Score’, given to Hildur Guðnadóttir, an Icelandic composer, for her work on the Academy Award-nominated film Joker. Though known for her eerie scores on both Joker and the television series Chernobyl, Guðnadóttir’s roots are in the classical realm, having been trained as a classical cellist. Alongside her Golden Globe win, Guðnadóttir’s score for Joker has been nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Best Original Score.’ If she wins, she will be the fourth woman to win in this category and the first since 1997.
With all these strides being made by these badass women, the future looks promising for women striving to reach the highest echelons of classical music.